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JPD on fatal fall: 'We weren't actively pursuing them at the time'

Man jumped from window to avoid cops, fell to death from cliff

Posted: November 8, 2011 - 6:52pm  |  Updated: November 9, 2011 - 12:01am

New details have emerged about the circumstances surrounding the death of a Juneau man who fell off an 80-foot cliff with his girlfriend earlier this week.

The fatal fall into Kowee Creek killed Evan Marshall Smith, 22, and seriously injured Jamie Lyn Vonda, 18, whom police describe as Smith’s girlfriend. The Empire obtained Vonda’s name through court records and verified it with the Juneau Police Department.

JPD Chief Greg Browning said in an interview Tuesday afternoon a preliminary investigation shows the couple were evading police at the time, but officers were not chasing them on foot.

“We weren’t actively pursuing them at the time,” Browning said.

JPD received a report of a disturbance in Cedar Park Apartments off Cordova Street in Douglas around 2 a.m. Sunday from a neighbor who called the police, he said. The nature of the disturbance is still undetermined as the investigation is still ongoing, but at least three people were in the apartment at the time, including Smith and Vonda. Court documents indicate Smith lives in that apartment complex.

“When the officers got there — I guess prior to the officers getting there — the people involved in the disturbance elected to jump out the window and go out into the woods to try to keep from talking to officers,” Browning said. “There was probably alcohol involved and what have you. Being 2:30 in the morning, pitch black and raining — not a great time to go exploring in the woods right next to a cliff — and from my understanding, they just both fell down the cliff. When the officers got there, they heard the girl’s cries for help and found her and found him.”

He added, “We weren’t actively pursuing them at the time ... The officers knew that they had left the apartment, that they had gone into the woods, and the officers were just out there with their flashlights trying to find them.”

Police officials said Vonda told them in later interviews they had figured police would be called to the scene because a yet-to-be identified third person in the apartment was creating a disturbance. They had heard police outside, probably in the parking lot, and she said she agreed to evade police by climbing out of the second-story apartment’s window onto the roof and then jumping to the ground.

She had fallen onto her back, she said, and screamed in pain. Her friends dragged her on the snow further away from the apartment since she was unable to get up at first. She then saw Smith take off running into the steep, dark woods behind the complex, and she followed him.

She told police she only saw Smith running for the first five feet before darkness enveloped him. She didn’t see the cliff, she said. She was just running and then, all of a sudden, falling. She landed feet first in the ravine about 80 feet below. Police found her boyfriend’s body nearby.

“At this point, it just seems to be a tragic accident,” Browning said.

Vonda was taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital for multiple injuries that were non-life threatening. BRH media liaison Jim Strader said on Tuesday afternoon the woman, whom he did not identify by name, was released from BRH and transferred to Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage by Guardian Flight, a company that provides medical flights to and from Alaskan communities. Strader described Vonda as being in a stable, noncritical condition.

The police investigation has yet to determine why Smith, Vonda and the third person were evading police. Browning speculated that it “might have had something to do with minor consuming or it might have had something to do with not wanting to be investigating about an assault or something, but that’s what we’re still investigating.”

Court documents indicate Smith was on probation at the time, and that Vonda has two active criminal cases open relating to being a minor consuming alcohol. One of those is scheduled to go to trial later this month, and the arraignment in the other case is slated for Dec. 1.

Browning said whatever the reason was, it was “an unfortunate thing to have happen.”

“I feel sorry for the family members,” he said. “It’s an awfully young age to die.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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